How do you make friends as a teacher? How do you hold onto friends you had before you were a teacher? How, for that matter, do you hold onto the parts of your non-teacher self?
I won’t pretend to have all the answers (or even any of the answers, really) but I am someone who spends lots of time thinking about this stuff. I try to be as mentally healthy and well-balanced as possible. This sometimes fails miserably. But the effort is worth it. Here’s the quick version of what I’ve learned – often via trial-and-error – over the past few months.
1. Build in routine. It is much easier to just automatically meet someone at the same time every week than to go through the hassle of calendaring in time, remembering it’s happening, building things around it, etc. I have a “work date” with a close college friend every Sunday morning at the same coffee shop, and I usually go for margaritas on Friday evenings after work with some other teachers from school. The routine makes it easier to fall into and provides structure/something to look forward to! Especially on those lonnnng Fridays.
2. Set expectations in advance. Especially for your friends who are not in TFA or are not teachers in general. There’s no harm in explaining what your schedule is like and you may not have a lot of physical/mental energy. Explain why. Explain that it’s not personal. People who know you and respect you will understand.
3. Purposefully surround yourself with supportive people. People who say they’re supportive and people who actually ARE supportive are not one and the same. Of course, it’s rare (at least in my case) to encounter people who are actively negative and will outwardly smack-talk your decision to join TFA. What’s more common is people who take a “you brought this upon yourself” attitude. For example: “You have so much work this weekend? But isn’t this what you signed up for? Can you just finish it all on Sunday? Does it really need to be done? Does it have to be as perfect as you say it does? Aren’t you just overestimating how long it’ll take you? Didn’t they say TFA was hard?”. Or any of those things. Supportive people will not make you feel bad about about your workload or how long it takes you do to things. That said, though…
4. Purposefully surround yourself with people who will look out for you even if you’re not looking out for yourself, and aren’t afraid to call you on it. Supportive friends are not enablers. For instance, my roommate (another 2013 CM) is wonderful and has literally said to me: “You just need to chill out. Here, let’s do some yoga.” and so yoga was done. In our living room. Because I was unnecessarily stressed about something I had zero control over. She was right, of course, as she so often is. You need to have at least a few people in your life who will call you out and make you rethink your choices – in the most positive way possible, of course.
5. Plan. Your. Time. There is no feeling worse than coming to the end of a long workweek and realizing you’ve had exactly one vegetable and have exercised exactly zero minutes. And though you tried your best that week, things just got in the way (as they so often do) so now you find yourself trying to rationalize the notion that a sweet potato fry counts as a vegetable. It may seem like it takes more effort to plan. But it takes wayyyy more effort to come up with a spontaneous, easy-to-cook, healthy, affordable meal. Plan out your meals for the week. Plan out some exercise time. Put it in your Outlook calendar. Hold it as sacred time. Don’t be afraid to request that a meeting or commitment be moved. If you’re not looking out for yourself, no one (except for the friends described in #3-4) will.
6. Talk about the hard stuff. In TFA-land, it’s easy to get sucked into the trap of “I should be doing ______” or “I should be feeling _______” or “I always thought that by now, I would’ve figured out [xyz]“. Hint. Everything is on your own timeline. Comparing your own to that of others is pointless and will waste your emotional energy. Getting sucked into the tornado-like vortex of negative self-talk is awful and is extremely difficult to snap out of. If you’re feeling down, talk about it. Reach out. Pick people who you can trust and who you’re okay with being vulnerable around. If it’s someone inside TFA, know that everyone struggles and people in TFA will have likely been there before. If it’s someone outside TFA, know that outside perspective is always helpful and might help you see things in a new light. But whoever it is…just talk. No holds barred. Things you keep in will eat you from the inside out.
7. Carry on with old traditions. Do you like to binge-watch episodes of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders tv show? (guilty as charged, whatever, feel free to judge away). Do you take long baths, or play guitar on your porch, or raise basil plants? Try and pick one or two traditions from your “old life” and keep them up. This brings some semblance of stability and order to your life. Doing this has helped me keep in mind that I did not leave behind my old self when I became a teacher; I am still entitled to the non-teacher parts of myself, and investing in those parts is a completely valid use of time. Plus, that basil plant or newly composed song will serve as an anchor for you when teacher-world gets to be a bit much.
8. Try out some new coping mechanisms. The challenge you face in TFA may be very different than the challenges you faced pre-Corps. New challenges call for new coping mechanisms. Don’t be afraid to try new things. And by try new things, I don’t mean turning to food/alcohol/drug/sex to deal with all of your problems. Personally I’ve found that exploring different aspects of faith/religion has been an incredibly helpful mechanism. I have friends who’ve taken up running, or baking, or journaling, or any number of things they didn’t do in college, but have now proven to be fundamental in maintaining life balance & happiness.
9. [this has been one of the hardest ones for me] Resist the urge to act on behalf of TFA on all occasions. TFA does a great job, or at least it did for me, of indoctrinating you into “the movement.” After I started teaching I suddenly found myself reading every Slate article or Jezebel posting with the mind of, “What would TFA say about this? What would they want me to say about this? What should I think about this?” Which is absurd. Before I joined the Corps, I was a relatively well-read person; I loved (and still love!) asking and thinking about big ed policy questions. None of these things went away after the first day of Induction. I am a TFA Corps Member. But I am still an individual. I’m allowed to have my own views on things. and so are you! If you are confused or unhappy about a TFA policy - that’s okay. If you’re worried about the way TFA is being presented in the national media – that’s okay. You are not TFA. TFA is not you. A negative TFA article in your news feed is not an indictment on the job you’re doing every day. Nor is it a mandate for you to fire off a rebuttal comment (or a supportive comment!) based on your day-to-day life. Maybe you’re too busy fighting the on-the-ground-battle for you to engage in a super high level policy discussion. Maybe the idea of said policy discussion even makes you nauseous, because you hate that you spent your entire day teaching and now feel pressured to go home and think more about teaching. It’s okay. You’re allowed to not be a teacher or a corps member sometimes. You can just be you.
So there it is. A few ways I’ve found to maintain my sanity/happiness/joy in the midst of the craziness of first-year-teaching. Said happiness is very much a work in progress. It’s not graceful, or pretty, and I’m not really sure of anything right now. But I’m getting there.